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Putin vs. Obama: The ‘New Cold War’ Roots of the Clash Over SyriaBy Jerry D. Morelock | War College | Published: September 13, 2013 at 5:33 pm
Editor in Chiefâ€™s Note: The November 2010 issue of Armchair General magazine contained the Special Feature article â€śRussiaâ€™s New Cold War,â€ť an in-depth examination of whether the behavior of the Putin (in 2010, the Medvedev-Putin) regime suggested that the â€śEvil Empireâ€ť of the Cold War era was back. The articleâ€™s analysis of Russian actions â€“ to include Russiaâ€™s domestic and foreign policy goals â€“ that explain Kremlin behavior remain vitally relevant to understanding the roots of the â€śPutin vs. Obamaâ€ť situation that has emerged in the current crisis over the Syrian civil war. Moreover, as the article predicted, since Putin was elected once again as Russiaâ€™s President in 2012 (garnering 64-percent of the vote and repressing subsequent protests) with the likely prospect of serving two, six-year terms, Barack Obama will not be the last U.S. President who must face the Putin regime.
RUSSIAâ€™S NEW COLD WAR
â€śThe Comrade Wolf knows whom to eat, as the saying goes. It knows whom to eat and is not about to listen to anyone.â€ť
Â In a March 8, 1983 speech, President Ronald Reagan famously characterized the totalitarian communist government of the Soviet Union as an â€śEvil Empire.â€ť He used the un-diplomatically blunt terminology to rally America and the West to take a more aggressive, hard-line stance toward the USSR during the fourth decade of the nearly half-century long military, economic, political and cultural superpower confrontation known as the Cold War (1947-91). When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991 â€“ its demise largely due to the inherent flaws in the rigid, inefficient Soviet system but accelerated by Reaganâ€™s revitalization of economic and military competition â€“ the Cold War was declared over and the Evil Empire relegated to the â€śash heap of historyâ€ť (another Reagan phrase but intentionally borrowed from one of the USSRâ€™s creators, Leon Trotsky).
However, recent behavior by the leaders of Russia, the USSRâ€™s principal successor state, raises concerns that Moscowâ€™s actions could represent a â€śnew Cold War.â€ť Certainly, the August 2008 Russian invasion of the tiny nation of Georgia, its neighbor (and a former Soviet colony) in the Caucasus, has evoked comparison to repressive, heavy-handed Soviet era military actions such as the brutal 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. Other Cold War-like Russian actions add to the perception: nuclear saber-rattling directed at Warsaw over U. S. missile defense base plans; using natural gas supply blackmail to intimidate former Soviet Union neighboring countries like Ukraine; disseminating and promoting virulent anti-Americanism in Russia and abroad; teaming up with Venezuelaâ€™s socialist dictator, Hugo Chavez, to challenge the U. S. in the Western Hemisphere (a recent $5 billion arms deal brings Venezuelaâ€™s weapons buy from Russia to $9 billion â€“ a huge amount for a South American country with a deteriorating economy); blocking international efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons; bullying other nations to accept Russian hegemony over Arctic region resources; spewing super-heated rhetoric whenever Western nations pursue policies Moscow doesnâ€™t like; and using threats of a renewed arms race to intimidate Washington into signing a new strategic arms reduction treaty. The Kremlinâ€™s hard-line aggressiveness gives rise to fears that the Evil Empire is back.
COLD WAR MENTALITY
Those claiming that we are entering a new Cold War era with Russia typically wax nostalgically about the â€śhoneymoon periodâ€ť of Russian-Western relations in the years immediately following the USSRâ€™s 1991 collapse. Finally released from seven-plus decades of stifling Soviet rule, Russiaâ€™s new democrats (many in the West presumed) had seen the light and were busily engaged in the pursuit of free market capitalism, domestic reform and international cooperation. Troubling indications that many in Russia were discontent with democratic reforms were simply blamed on the West, chalked up to Russian disappointment with the amount of Western assistance during the painful transition from communism to capitalism. To these observers, therefore, Russiaâ€™s recent behavior represents a troubling departure from what they presumed was transpiring during the â€śhoneymoon period.â€ť Or so the story goes.
Yet, those of us who developed and coordinated U. S.-Russia policy issues in Washington during the early- to mid-1990s observed that the â€śhoneymoon periodâ€ť was largely an illusion. Americans and Russians were viewing each other through the lenses of their own experiences and world views, making faulty assumptions about what they were seeing and imparting on each other presumed attitudes and motivations that neither actually held. Russian leadership has never lost what we might term its â€śCold War mentality,â€ť but which those in the Kremlin see as jealously guarding Russiaâ€™s historic â€“ and, to them, rightfully deserved — national interests. And this attitude is not only held by Russiaâ€™s leadership â€“ it permeates the ordinary Russian population.
THE VIEW FROM THE VOLGA
The attitude of these Red Army veterans reflected their conviction that the USSR had not â€ślostâ€ť the Cold War. In their minds and those of their countrymen, the superpower confrontation had been brought to a close largely due to Soviet forbearance and restraint â€“ the USSR had â€śallowedâ€ť the captive nations of Eastern Europe to tear down the Iron Curtain by deciding not to take the military action that would have been necessary to prevent it. They were convinced that Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, the Baltic nations, East Germany and the rest of Soviet-dominated Europe had only succeeded in becoming free and independent nations because the Soviet Union had allowed them to do so.
Muscovites often refer to their city as â€śPutingradâ€ť (â€śSt. Putinsburgâ€ť also pops up). Aided by a lapdog Russian media, Putin deliberately has cultivated a bare-chested, â€śhe-manâ€ť image that promotes him as the epitome of â€śRussian manliness.â€ť Revealingly, one of Putinâ€™s favorite Russian leaders of the past is Czar Peter the Great, the dynamic ruler who transformed Russia from a backward Eurasian fiefdom into an empire and major European power. Putin-worship in Russia seems reminiscent of Stalinâ€™s sinister â€ścult of personality,â€ť and Putin has done little to dampen his countrymenâ€™s enthusiasm in that regard.
Putin encourages a resurgent Russian nationalism seldom seen since the bad old days of the Cold War that now blindly and withÂ knee-jerk chauvinism routinelyÂ rejects any criticism of crimes committed by the USSR, dismissing such charges as anti-Russian propaganda or Western provocation. A public opinion poll in Russia taken in the wake of the 2008 Russia-Georgia War reported an 80-percent approval rating of the Russian invasion of Georgia, a result hardly likely to dissuade Kremlin bosses from pursuing a similar course in the future.
Russiaâ€™s political leadership of the countryâ€™s â€śmanaged democracyâ€ť operates mostly unfettered by the brakes found in the U.S. and most Western European countries. Russian media spouts the Kremlin party line (while unfriendly reporters often suffer dire consequences, including assassination, for criticizing the regime), the public swoons every time Putin bares his chest, and the rubber stamp Federal Assembly generally follows the executiveâ€™s lead. Nationalism may be passĂ© in the West, but it is virtually the state religion of Russia, reinforced by an â€śus against themâ€ť mentality that permeates the country and results in the populationâ€™s whole-hearted support of Putinâ€™s drive to regain the nationâ€™s former superpower status (couched in Kremlin terms as achieving a â€śmulti-polarâ€ť world order).
Putinâ€™s â€śRussia ĂĽber allesâ€ť approach to domestic and foreign policy plays well to the Russian public. [See â€śWhat Does Russia Really Want?â€ť: Russiaâ€™s Domestic and Foreign Policy Goals]. Moreover, the Kremlin regime is aided and abetted by important vested interests. Chief among these vested interests that have climbed aboard the Putin regime bandwagon are Russiaâ€™s â€śoligarchs,â€ť a new class of predatory businessmen amassing fortunes with the aid of government collusion (and who are kept in line by the threat of prison or exile if they cross Putin). The other important vested interest is Russiaâ€™s military-industrial complex fueled (quite literally via gas and oil revenues) by the 500-percent increase in military budgets since 2000. Although Western analysts have criticized the Russian militaryâ€™s performance (organization, leadership, training, tactics, execution, and dated weapons technology â€“ particularly the Russian Air Force) in the August invasion of Georgia, its swift defeat of Georgiaâ€™s overmatched, NATO-trained military demonstrates that Russiaâ€™s armed forces significantly improved since the humiliating Kursk submarine disaster in 2000 starkly exposed Russiaâ€™s military weakness. Much needs to be done if Russiaâ€™s dream of bringing its forces up to the superpower status and global reach of the U. S. armed forces is ever to be realized, but the Georgia invasion demonstrated that the Russian military is quite capable of intimidating or, if necessary, overpowering its nearby neighbors. Although Russian forces today, armed with 1980s-era weapons and supported by out of date technology, may only be an updated version of the force that rolled into Berlin in 1945, they seem more than adequate to roll into, say, Tbilisi, Kiev, Riga or Talinn.
THE STRATEGY OF ANTI-AMERICANISM
The Kremlinâ€™s anti-Americanism strategic tool is useful both domestically and internationally. On the home front, America is a convenient scapegoat upon which to blame Russiaâ€™s ills, such as the failure of economic reforms taken in the wake of the USSRâ€™s collapse to bring wider-spread prosperity and the continuing domination of the countryâ€™s economy by predatory oligarchs (who, the â€śparty lineâ€ť claims, have merely mimicked U. S. capitalist exploiters, the stereotypical image of American businessmen promoted for decades by Soviet propagandists). In this regard, Putin and his allies are stealing a tactic from Stalin (whose resurrection as a Russian national hero is, not coincidentally, in full swing). In the 1930s, Stalin used the specter of banished Bolshevik revolutionary, Leon Trotsky, to create an entire class of â€śenemies of the people,â€ť branded as â€śTrotskyite wreckersâ€ť who were conveniently blamed for the disruption, accidents and widespread privation actually caused by Stalinâ€™s brutal forced industrialization. Although todayâ€™s â€śenemies of the peopleâ€ť have changed, the tactic is the same. It also works â€“ a recent public opinion poll showed that 75-percent of Russians polled believed that the United States â€śabused its global power;â€ť only 2-percent expressed â€śa lot of confidenceâ€ť that American President Barack Obama would â€śdo the right thing in world affairs.â€ť
Internationally, anti-Americanism in Russian foreign policy is being used as a tool to forge closer relations with countries opposed to U. S. policy and influence such as Iran and Venezuela. Using the foreign policy approach of seeking to unite with these countries against the â€ścommon enemyâ€ť â€“ America â€“ Russia hopes to create a counterbalance to American global influence by creating a â€śmulti-polarâ€ť world. This approach also works to some degree with Western European countries that perceive any extension of U. S. international political, economic, cultural and military power and prestige as a blatant attempt to spread American global hegemony.
NATO: THE KREMLINâ€™S ENDURING BOOGEYMAN
Although NATO has profoundly evolved from its Cold War-era role as the military bulwark against potential Soviet aggression toward Western Europe, it remains the Kremlinâ€™s boogeyman. Russian leadership continues to resent what it perceives as NATOâ€™s â€śaggressive actionsâ€ť in former Soviet Union countries on Russiaâ€™s borders, and Moscow has been especially irritated by the pro-NATO, pro-U. S. policies of former USSR republics like Georgia, Ukraine and the Baltic nations. In this regard, Russiaâ€™s recent humiliation of Georgia not only re-affirmed Russian influence in the Caucasus, it sent an unambiguous â€śbe careful of cooperating with NATOâ€ť message to Ukraine and the Baltic countries. Indeed, it was no surprise that soon after the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko showed up in Tbilisi to show support for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashviliâ€™s regime. Yushchenko had earned Moscowâ€™s ire by actively seeking NATO membership for Ukraine; but Russian leadership is elated by the February 2010 election of pro-Russia politician and Moscow favorite, Viktor Yanukovych, who seems to have quashed any further Ukraine bid to join NATO for the foreseeable future (Yanukovych has stated that the issue of Ukrainian membership in NATO might â€śemerge at some point, but we will not see it in the immediate future.â€ť).
Moscow sees NATO as a dagger pointed at Russia; Washington views NATO as a security blanket whose evolved mission should no longer be perceived as directly targeting Moscow. U. S. leadership considers NATO today as an effective means of applying the principle of collective security to counter threats in todayâ€™s increasingly dangerous world, and as a valuable forum for keeping European countries â€śengagedâ€ť in vital international issues. Yet, absent a sudden disbanding of NATO, it seems certain that it will remain the Kremlinâ€™s convenient boogeyman through which to garner and maintain domestic support, and to provide an excuse for Russiaâ€™s reassertion of its national interests throughout its former empire. Fear and loathing of NATO among ordinary Russians is much too valuable a domestic political tool for Moscow to abandon.
OUTLOOK: WORLD STATESMEN OR REGIONAL BULLIES?
Whether we call the Kremlinâ€™s current approach to domestic and international affairs a new Cold War or â€“ more accurately — simply â€śRussians acting like Russians,â€ť it seems highly unlikely that Moscow will abandon its pursuit of what it perceives as acting aggressively in its own national interests as long as the main elements of the countryâ€™s national power remain robust. Political scientists identify the traditional elements of national power as comprised of economic, political and military components. Economically â€“ barring a complete global financial meltdown or a total collapse of the oil and gas market Â â€“ Russiaâ€™s petroleum and natural gas-fueled economy should remain strong enough for the Kremlin to continue its â€ścarrot and stickâ€ť oil and gas blackmail against Western Europe and former Soviet Union nations bordering Russia.
Politically, the Putin-Medvedev regime enjoys broad-based domestic support, while the weak-kneed Western European response to Russiaâ€™s August 2008 aggression against Georgia is an indicator of the increasing strength of Russiaâ€™s international political stature. The apparently inevitable prospect of Putin returning as Russian President at the 2012 election â€“ eligible to serve two consecutive 6-year terms â€“ hardly augurs an imminent sea-change in the attitudes and actions of Russian political leadership.
Militarily, continued Russian investment in improving its armed forces will enhance a military machine that already has proven quite capable of carrying out Moscowâ€™s regional threats to Russiaâ€™s former Soviet Union neighboring nations. Significantly, Gen. Nikolai Makarov, Russiaâ€™s Chief of the General Staff, has publicly lobbied for increased investment in exactly what the Russian Armed Forces need to make dramatic improvements to achieve the necessary components of a true superpower military force: the development of precision weapons; intelligence-gathering satellites; air defenses; and the air force. Strategically, Russiaâ€™s nuclear arsenal means that the country is and will remain a nuclear superpower — a positioned strengthened by the Obama administrationâ€™s decision to cancel a Europe-based missile defense system (which potentially could have neutralized much of Russiaâ€™s nuclear arsenal and thereby negate its nuclear superpower status), and by the April 8, 2010, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) whose effect is to virtually guarantee Russia nuclear parity with the U. S.
During the Communist era, Kremlin leaders based decisions and policies on a Marxist concept called the â€ścorrelation of forces,â€ť comparing oneâ€™s own and the enemyâ€™s strength, evaluating the potential possibilities offered by a favorable â€ścorrelationâ€ť and planning strategy accordingly. Although that Marxist term may no longer be fashionable, the attitude and behavior of the current Kremlin occupants clearly demonstrate that they have not forgotten what it means. Whether or not Russiaâ€™s superpower aspirations will influence Kremlin leaders to start acting like world statesmen instead of regional bullies remains to be seen
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